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Friday, June 6, 2014

Blue Gold, written by Elizabeth Stewart. Annick Press, 2014. $12.95 ages 14 and up

"In a rush, she explained about her sick father and her back pay. It was on the tip of Laiping's tongue to point out that it wasn't legal for the company to withhold the money she was owed, but she didn't want to seem like a troublemaker - not when she needed Miss Lau to be on her side. "This is highly irregular," said Miss Lau. "But my father is ill," Laiping explained again. "I need the money now..."

There were times when I just couldn't keep reading Elizabeth Stewart's new book about injustice and greed. She tells her story from three perspectives. Laiping is a too-young girl who has left her home in the Chinese countryside to work in a city factory in order to help her impoverished family. Sylvie and her family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo when her father was murdered in a fight over mining the rare mineral coltan. Fiona is a Canadian girl whose 'sexting' a photo to her boyfriend goes viral, and whose father is a mining executive with interests in the Congo.

Enticed by her cousin's promises of wealth and wonder, Laiping is not old enough to work in the factory where cell phones are made. She lies to get the job and, as are the thousands of other young girls who work with her, is treated abominably by the company. They work at soldering circuit boards day in and day out because they are desperate; they cannot complain for fear of reprisal. Their wages are withheld, their meals are meagre, their accommodation is one small bunk in rooms that contain thousands, and they must work harder and harder to keep up with the demand for cell phones. It is grueling, and demeaning. When Laiping asks for the money she is owed to help get medical care for her father, her request is refused. This helps her to understand why other workers are demanding better, safer, more equitable conditions for all. Laiping needs her job to help her family; she keeps away from those who want to change the system that is in place.
Sylvie has taken responsibility for her family in the wake of her father's death. Her mother is unable to cope with her grief, there are younger siblings to care for; Sylvie becomes the parent. She wants her brothers to stay in school. Food is scarce. More refugees mean less for everyone. When her brother Olivier joins forces with the camp warlord, Sylvie is frantic. She seeks help and guidance from the camp medical staff. They are willing to help her escape to Canada with her family, where life will be much better for them. After being promised in marriage to that same warlord by Olivier, Sylvie is in even greater danger. With help from strangers in countries around the world, who have learned of her plight through the media, Sylvie is able to escape with her family to the Canadian embassy.

As Sophie deals with the repercussions of sexting a photo to her boyfriend Ryan, she learns many important lessons about responsibility, about admitting mistakes, and about her life of privilege in comparison to what she learns about Sylvie through social media. Knowing that her father has influence and wealth, she asks for his help in getting Sylvie's family to Canada.

Each of the three fifteen-year-old girls is compelling and realistic. Their stories are well told, and are connected by coltan, the 'blue gold' of the title. They want the same things that teenage girls everywhere in the world want: friendship, love, family harmony, and a future. Their voices are clear and strong.

Elizabeth Stewart has written a story that is often uncomfortable, that is sure to have readers talking about issues of importance, and that needs to be told. It will raise awareness of world concerns  that are not often considered. An afterword will help readers to understand Ms. Stewart's need to tell her story, to find further information, and perhaps, to take some small steps of their own.

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